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Iran: Musical Epic 'Ta'ziyeh' Premieres In New York

  • Nikola Krastev

The ancient Persian musical epic "Ta'ziyeh" made its North American debut last week as part of the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in New York City. The show, a unique blend of religious symbolism, poetic declamation, traditional singing, and interaction with the audience, went on despite the fact that 10 of the 28 Iranian performers were denied entry into the United States.

New York, 15 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Theatergoers in New York this month are enjoying a unique opportunity, a chance to see the traditional Persian musical "Ta'ziyeh," which is rarely performed outside Iran and which saw its North American debut last week at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as part of its summer festival.

"Ta'ziyeh" is a collection of musical sketches narrating the succession conflict that followed the death of the Prophet Mohammad in 680 A.D. The conflict between Yazid, the Caliph of Damascus, and Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet, culminates in the slaying of Hussein in the Battle of Kerbala near Baghdad and the founding of the Shiite sect of Islam, now the state religion in Iran.

Iranian children grow up with the story of "Ta'ziyeh," which may be the most popular and elaborate form of theater ever to emerge from the Islamic world. William Beeman, an anthropology professor at Brown University, said "Ta'ziyeh" is the fundamental story at the center of the Shiite belief system. "The story of Hussein is tantamount [for Shiite Muslims] to, for instance, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for Christians. It has absolute, essential, central value and is invoked at every turn in Iranian life. It does become an important touchstone for political life, for moral life, for religious life," Beeman said.

Beeman was speaking at a 13 July symposium on "Ta'ziyeh" organized by the New York-based nonprofit Asia Society and featuring the participation of leading Western scholars on Islamic culture. The Lincoln Center performances of "Ta'ziyeh," which is recognized as the only indigenous form of Islamic musical theater, have been eagerly anticipated in New York, where they are seen as a rare glimpse into the world of Islamic religious culture.

Organizers of the festival said the invitation to the "Ta'ziyeh" troupe was in part a response to the rise in anti-Islamic sentiment that followed the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States. Asked if there might be any resentment in Iran that a piece as sacred as "Ta'ziyeh" was being performed in the West, Beeman said the participants, at least, are aware they are performing in a different cultural context. "They really do thoroughly understand that we are under different performing circumstances here. However, they themselves make, I think, a very clear conceptual separation between 'Ta'ziyeh' as an art form and 'Ta'ziyeh' as a religious ritual. They understand that an audience in the United States is not going to have the same religious identification with 'Ta'ziyeh' as they would find in Iran. At the same time, they are sophisticated-enough people that they want American audiences to understand and to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the work," Beeman said.

Peter Chelkowski is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University and a leading authority on "Ta'ziyeh," not only in the West but also in Iran, where he earned a doctorate in Persian literature from Tehran University. He said that in its heyday, there were hundreds of "Ta'ziyeh" stories placed in dramatic form, and that Vatican archives include "Ta'ziyeh" scripts that haven't been performed for centuries.

Chelkowski noted that while productions of "Ta'ziyeh" in Iran can feature hundreds of performers on stage, the Lincoln Center presentation has just 18. Most of the performers, he added, are not full-time theater professionals. "Each one has a different [day] job. In the company here [at Lincoln Center], there's one dentist. [There is] one gentleman who is an owner of a factory. They come from various walks of life. This is their devotion. They are 'professional' [performers] because they train," Chelkowski said.

The original traveling cast of "Ta'ziyeh" was meant to include 28 performers. But U.S. consular officials denied visas to 10 cast members, including Mohammad Berekatipoor, the star of "Qusem," the second of three segments in "Ta'ziyeh." This forced the rapid replacement of "Qusem" with another segment and the reduction of the total number of performances from 12 to nine.

Nevertheless, the essential elements of "Ta'ziyeh" remain. Chelkowski described one of the epic's climactic moments, when a young boy named Abdullah, a nephew of Hussein, offers himself to be killed instead of his uncle. Chelkowski said the death of children became a particularly poignant aspect of "Ta'ziyeh" in performances during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. "This is the nephew Adbullah, and the nephew comes and says, 'Kill me, don't kill my uncle.' And that's a convention in 'Ta'ziyeh,' to show the death of children. Particularly during these eight bloody years of war with Iraq, that was very important, because all those kids were killed, slaughtered," Chelkowski said.

Beeman of Brown University said that "Ta'ziyeh" is the classic tale of morality, represented by Hussein, versus immorality, represented by Yazid, told against the backdrop of Iran's culture and traditions. "What 'Ta'ziyeh' does is to do this by marshalling the most important symbolic forms in Iranian culture, namely poetry, music, and visual symbolism. And because it uses the resources of the culture, it uses the most powerful and emotional elements in the culture to depict the most powerful and emotional story in Iran. In this way, the performance actually transcends itself and has the possibility of communicating universally, beyond the confines of specifically Iranian culture," Beeman said.

Beeman said that in Iran, lending community and financial support to productions of "Ta'ziyeh" is considered a charitable act. The performance, costume maintenance, and even the food given to audience members during the performance are all paid for by the public. No food is distributed to the Lincoln Center audiences, many of whom have paid up to $55 for the rare privilege of watching "Ta'ziyeh."

Another key difference, Beeman noted, is that "Ta'ziyeh" is usually performed in an open space, such as a village square or a large tent, with the audience sitting in circular rows where no one seat is better than another. "'Ta'ziyeh' is ultimately very democratic. It's not like La Scala [opera house in Milan] where the fifth balcony is for the sort of people who cannot afford to sit down in the bottom. 'Ta'ziyeh' tries to perform in a way which allows as much access to the action as possible for the [audience]," Beeman said.

The New York performances of "Ta'ziyeh" continue through 21 July.

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